Friday, May 21, 2021

On the Myth of Prison Closures Generating Cost Savings: How TDCJ can ↓ prisoners by 20% and still see costs rise nine figures per biennium

From the earliest days your correspondent first showed up at the Texas Legislature, I've been grumpy about how they score "fiscal notes" related to bills increasing incarceration. Dr. Tony Fabelo and I used to go round about this when he led the Criminal Justice Policy Council.

Bills that increase incarceration are deemed to have no significant cost, even though every additional prisoner requires supervision, food, healthcare, etc.. And bills that decrease incarceration weren't deemed to generate budget reductions on the grounds that no real money was saved unless the state closed prison units and could save money on guard salaries.

So, for years, bills increasing incarceration were treated in the state budget as freebies while bills reducing incarceration received no credit from budget writers. 

Then, in 2013, Texas finally broke through and reduced incarceration enough to begin closing units. Since that time we've closed about a dozen of them. And yet, every session, TDCJ's budget goes up and up.

It turned out to be a myth that closing prison units would reduce the budget. Frankly, your correspondent is as surprised as anyone, though with 20/20 hindsight it's easy to see why.

Texas has reduced its prison population by about 20 percent, but most of that reduction has come among prisoners with shorter sentences. Meanwhile, the big cost drivers at TDCJ are 1) healthcare for elderly prisoners and 2) deferred maintenance on old units.

So, even with the lowest prisoner population in the 21st century and a dozen units shuttered, TDCJ's latest budget includes huge, nine-figure increases:

Turns out, elderly prisoner's healthcare costs and deferred maintenance are bottomless pits and reducing prisoner numbers hasn't slowed them down much at all. Whenever costs are reduced from prison closures, there's a massive backlog of expenses they want to spend that money on, so the budget never goes down. Prison closures could theoretically be targeted to units with the highest maintenance costs. But there are other factors like terrific staffing shortages at certain rural units that also drive closure decisions.

It's now clear TDCJ's budget growth can't be contained without reducing incarceration among the cohort with the longest sentences. The Life Without Parole cohort has exploded since 2005, and thousands more prisoners in their senior years face decades-long sentences that could conceivably keep them there until their deaths.

Many Texans might think that's okay for murderers, sex offenders, and others with especially long sentences. But those cohorts also have among the lowest recidivism rates among releasees (they've typically long-ago aged out of crime, and most murders are one-offs). And here's the catch: Medicare doesn't pay for prisoner healthcare, so if Texas chooses to keep them incarcerated, it must pay 100% of costs for long-term and ultimately end-of-life care. 

That said, this is a surmountable problem using mechanisms available under current law. With the exception of those with LWOP sentences (who're mostly not elderly yet, anyway, though they'll contribute to the problem soon enough), some 60 percent of TDCJ prisoners are eligible to be paroled immediately. Indeed, some 15,000 of them have already been approved for release but remain incarcerated because TDCJ only provides treatment services post-approval. Legislation to move the treatment timeline up passed the Texas House but the Lt. Governor as of this writing has refused to refer the bill to committee.

So for the time being, expect Texas prison costs to keep ballooning: Looking at the bills still moving in the waning days of the 87th Legislature, the state doesn't appear poised to change any of the dynamics causing it.


Gadfly said...

Texas could do what the feds do, except for the Supermax type guys at the federal level. "Dump em out" when they're 65 and Medicare-eligible.

Gary said...

Does it matter financially if taxpayers pay for the medical bills through the state while they are imprisoned or via Medicare when they are paroled?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Gary: Yes, bc it's different taxpayers and different mechanisms of health finance, one designed for the purpose and one not. Medicare is paid for by the federal government and provides generally adequate services. Prison health care comes out of the state's general revenue fund and tends to be sub-par, often shorting preventive care then paying MUCH more on the back end.

Unknown said...

HB 1805 would allow prisoners who have already served a substantial amount of their long prison sentences to qualify for good time to be toward their eligibility for early parole. However, this legislation appears to be slated to go nowhere once again despite the overwhelmingly positive testimony presented to the House Corrections Committee.

Gadfly said...

@Gary, Also,for the feds, the Federal Bureau of Prisons figgures its money NOT out of its pot, and instead out of Medicare's.

Gary said...

Seems like a cost accountant answer, it's not really true outside the parameters that are preset.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Gary, the thing about accountants is their books have to balance. We're talking about different taxpayers, hence different governments and different ppl paying. I guess it's fine to pretend there's no difference if it all come from "taxpayers," but IRL it's a major difference to the state's bottom line AND the type of healthcare that gets financed. We're paying more for worse outcomes by paying for these folks from state coffers instead of Medicare, by a country mile.

Gary said...

Well Grits, the thing about accountants is that if it doesn't balance they make a correcting entry and viola the books balance. It's kinda a slight of hand used when the amount isn't worth spending time over.

So in my real world, it seems that offloading the health costs from the state to the feds also entails additional spending on housing and food stamps all of which will be additional fed spending while the prison system doesn't actually reduce it's spending. The cost per prisoner will go through the roof (while spending didn't go up, it just didn't go down). You'll be able to right a piece in a couple of years on how we should reduce the prison population more in order to save money because of the sky rocketing cost of housing each prisoner.

If you want to argue reducing the prison population on humanitarian grounds fine, but you won't make much headway arguing on the financial side.

shahzad ahmad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I think the larger point being missed on the financial argument here and Grits is right; is that there would be a large sum of available dollars to pay for a long list of anything the legislature felt was important - INSTEAD of medical care for aging prisoners, most of whom are no longer a threat to their community. Some of those prisoners would have family members take them in and their cost to the community would be significantly decreased by having access to better healthcare in the community.

List of things possible to fund instead of paying medical care for elderly prisoners:
-increase teacher salaries
-improved community-based alternatives to incarceration/detention to further reduce incarceration
-improve/stabilize the financial retirement systems for all state employees (ERS, TRS, LECOS and all the others)
-decrease state-wide property taxes


Gary said...

Anon, Part of Grits contention is that prison spending will not go down (based on history) so the money won't be available for other state projects.

Even if it did become available for the state to spend elsewhere total government spending (fed + state) goes up.

I don't see how that's a good outcome either way (financially speaking).

Joel R. Lambright said...

To all commenters: I think the larger theme that Grits gets at is simply that we, as a group of taxpayers, seems obstinately determined to pour in good money after bad.

I think it is established at this point that the criminal justice system, as it currently stands, needs sweeping reform. Now, I am not advocating something immediate and radical. Rather, marginal changes moving in a different direction away from entrenched positions are in order. The things that work, expand with additional resources; the things that don't, calibrate to the particular problem that they address best; and the things that actually make things worse, gradually phase out.

What I've stated here is not some grand epiphany if we were speaking in business terms. The only leap I have made is treating criminal justice like the industry it has become.

Anonymous said...

If the parole board did its job, instead of denying parole for inmates who have improved their lives by taking classes and working and getting no additional charges. Those inmates deserve a second chance. This will help the budget for TDCJ.

Anonymous said...

TDCJ is dumping them out into society, Texas Courts are not incarcerating criminals but instead placing them on Probation. Probation is working to rehabilitate criminals, and supervise these people in our communities. Yet, TDJC continues to receive federal money, pay increases, and probation is just left with bigger caseloads, with no additional money for pay increases!